Debut Author Explores Middle School Friendships and Discusses Favorite Holiday Books

I’m so happy to warmly welcome debut author Laney Nielson to the Mixed Up Files. Her new book Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, chronicles seventh grade Sasha’s determination to create a prize-winning dance routine at her school’s holiday variety show competition, as well at her misguided attempts to get her crush to like her back. The story realistically depicts many different sorts of middle school crushes, including an obligatory crush and a same sex crush, as well as the stress of de-intensifying a friendship. Laney is a former classroom teacher with a Masters in Education. She is a past recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentorship and active member of SCBWI North Texas.

Sasha loves dancing and is preparing intensely for the Holiday Spectacular. Were you are dancer when you were younger or was this something you had to research?

Although I’ve always loved to dance around the living room, I am definitely not a dancer. In fact, in eighth grade I took tap dancing for my P. E. class and earned a whopping D+. I can still remember the agony of trying to shuffle my way to Buffalo during the final routine. It would make for a funny scene in a tween novel, but at the time it was the longest two minutes of my life and pure humiliation. So in writing about Sasha’s passion, I definitely needed to do my research. I read about different techniques and watched lots of videos. I also observed my younger daughter’s dance class and her wonderful teacher answered my questions. I’ve always loved dance recitals (as an audience member). So the research was fun!

Most of the main characters in Peppermint Cocoa Crushes are passionate about their extracurricular activities. Do you think this is an important part of the middle school experience? Did you have a passion as a tween?

I think the tween years are a great time to develop a passion or discover a new interest. In Pumpkin Spice Secrets (your delightful Swirl novel!), Maddie builds up her public speaking skills through a school project and discovers she likes debate. This helps her in other areas of her life (especially with her best friend). I love the culminating scene when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself! It’s so important for young people to feel like they can express themselves. In Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, Sasha expresses herself through dance and her community service projects. There are a number of things that are not going well in her life, but her extracurricular activities give her a sense of identity and security.

Middle school can also be a time when your interests shift. In Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, Karly, Sasha’s best friend realizes she wants to spend more time on Quiz Bowl and other academic pursuits. At first it’s hard for Sasha to accept her friend’s new interests and goals. Middle school is all about making connections through shared experiences. So it’s painful when you feel a friend drift away.

When I was in middle school, my best friend was a cellist. (She now plays for the Saint Louis Symphony.) She practiced multiple hours a day and attended Pre-College Julliard every Saturday. I was so proud of her. (I still am!) But compared to the kind of passion and dedication she displayed, I was a bit of a slacker. I liked to do lots of things but there was nothing I was willing to spend hours practicing. Unless you count reading, of course!

I love how your characters live in a variety of family structures. Sasha lives with her single mom. Another character lives with his grandparents. Did you consciously try to mix things up like this?

In writing realistic fiction, I want to reflect the world where our readers live. Otherwise it’s not realistic! So yes, it was a conscious decision to show different family structures. Kids who are being raised by single parents or grandparents or any of the many ways we come together to do family, deserve to see their families represented in books. This story focuses on Sasha who is trying to adjust to her new family structure, which has brought new financial stresses and realities. I think lots of kids understand how that feels.

Without giving too much away, your novel features a same-sex crush in a very naturalistic way. When Barbara Dee’s Star Crossed first came out (featuring two middle schoolgirls in crush with each other), she received a warm reception as well as some pushback. Have you received any censorship or pushback as well?

When I was writing Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, I was encouraged by the warm reception Barbara Dee’s Star Crossed was receiving. I haven’t read it yet, but it is in my TBR pile. I’m looking forward to it! As for pushback on depicting same-sex crushes for tween readers? I know it’s out there, which concerns me. My job as a writer of realistic fiction is to write a story that will resonate with contemporary readers. I hate to state the obvious here, but middle schoolers experience crushes whatever their sexual orientation. There are lots of middle grade books that showcase heterosexual crushes, but very few with same-sex crushes. I hope that’s starting to change.

There’s another aspect of this I wanted to explore and that is how to be a supportive friend. Sasha doesn’t know how to respond to Kevin when he admits he likes Ryan. Later her older (and wiser) sister tells her—this is not about you, this is something important about Kevin, about who he is. It’s so basic and yet so often when someone shares something about who they are, we don’t react in a way that honors or validates them. Instead we think about what it means for us. But it’s not about us!

And so I circle back to those adults who have concerns about middle grade books that depict same-sex relationships. It’s not about us, and our adult discomfort. It’s about young people who deserve books that reflect their feelings and experiences.

On that note, I’ve got to give a shout out to the Andi Mack show on the Disney Channel for depicting a tween character coming out this fall. It was a pitch perfect scene. The friend’s response was supportive and sweet— truly T.V. worth watching. We need more!

Encouraging girls to go into STEM is definitely a huge trend. I was intrigued that while Sasha’s mother wanted to her to go in this direction, she did not. Have you experienced a similar tension?

I’m so excited about the work that’s being done to encourage girls to go into STEM. There are some excellent books out there too, including The Friendship Code from the “Girls Who Code” series by our fellow Swirl author—Stacia Deutsch. And I noticed that you all at the Mixed Up Files have launched STEM Tuesdays. Very exciting!

That being said this is not the direction Sasha wants to go in. Could that change, of course! But the roots of this mother-daughter conflict are definitely based in a real life exchange with my own daughters. A couple of years ago, I pitched the idea of enrolling in a coding class to them. I had just watched a video on girls and coding and I was so excited about the possibilities. “Think of what you can create,” I said. “You will have the power to write the future,” I added, laying it on a bit thick. Both my daughters are extremely creative, but they made it quite clear this was not how they wanted to create.

So as for Sasha and her mom, I understand both sides of that tension. I think most parents do. And of course the world needs all of us—the engineers and the storytellers, the doctors and the dancers.

Peppermint Cocoa Crushes is set during the holiday season. Do you have any favorite middle grade holiday books?

Growing up, I loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, especially the opening scene. Jo, Meg, and Amy are lamenting a Christmas without gifts while Beth reminds them to be grateful for what they do have. When Mrs. March comes home, they sit by the fire as she reads a letter from Father. And then the next day, they share their breakfast with a family in greater need. It captures the season so perfectly—there’s anticipation, disappointment, joy, sorrow and true generosity.

This year, I fell in love with another group of siblings. Set in the days leading up to Christmas, Karina Yan Glaser’s The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street tells the story of five siblings who band together to convince their landlord to let them stay in the only home they’ve ever known—a brownstone in Harlem. Each character is uniquely lovable and their attempts to save their home are spirited and endearing. At the heart of this story is what the season is all about—family and community and our humanity.

Another 2017 holiday story, I recommend for tween readers is Jenny Lundquist’s The Wondrous World of Violet Barnaby. When Violet finds a letter from her mother who died a year and a half earlier, she is given a Christmas to-do list that carries her through the ups and downs of a challenging holiday season. Violet faces the heartache of missing her mom while trying to adjust to a stepmother, stepsiblings and a new home. Nothing is easy, but there’s a lot of heart here and in the end Violet feels the love of her “second chance” family.

Hillary, thanks so much for having me on the Mixed Up Files. I’ve been a long time reader. So this was a real pleasure. And I’ve been a long time fan of your books. So it was a double pleasure!

Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge Fall 2018), as well as Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She can be found at and on her Facebook page.

Hillary Homzie